Tzaneen, South Africa
No smiles. Eyes forward, shoulders back. Hands, clenched into fists, held tightly at the side. The singing is as resolute as the posture. It is loud -- and determined.
The tune is the South African national anthem. "Die Stem," and it is sung by a crowd of some 500 whites in a small high school gymnasium in this eastern Transvaal Province farming town at the end of a political rally of the ruling National Party.
Closing rallies with the national anthem is a tradition with the Nationalists here. The song has been heard hundreds of times over the past couple of months, as a prelude to general elections in this white-minority-ruled country.
Now comes the finale, when the 20 percent of the country that is white heads to the polls (on April 29) to choose 165 parliamentarians. The outcome is not in doubt; the Nationalists will be returned with a substantial majority, and Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha will be returned to office.
But the unambiguous outcome -- like the resoluteness of the singing -- may well mask a deeper uncertainty among white South Africans. For their country is facing rising internal violence and growing international isolation. And that, in turn, is sparking widening disagreement over the country's future direction.
The election, despite its expected lopsided endorsement of the ruling party, will mirror that disagreement. Voters will likely move to the right and left of the Nationalists -- or simply abstain. And most commentators are predicting the National Party victory margin will be slashed in a number of key constituencies.
On the left, the official opposition Progressive Federal Party (PFP), which favors negotiating a new power-sharing arrangement with South Africa's black majority, may well increase its 18-seat bloc in Parliament.
On the right, the Reconstituted National Party (Herstigte Nasionale Party, or HNP) -- champions of strict racial segregation in all spheres of life -- could win its first one or two seats in Parliament.
Gains by either party, or a substantial staying away from the polls, will be interpreted as a repudiation of the policies of Prime Minister Botha. Mr. Botha has sparked right-wing resentment for merely talking about change in racial policies -- and has been slammed by liberal whites for doing nothing but talking.
Willem Kleynhans, professor of political science at the University of South Africa, says there has never been a prime minister in the history of the National Party so unpopular. Professor Kleynhans says this is evidenced by the low number of postal and absentee votes that have already been recorded -- and by the low turnout at numerous National Party rallies.
That trend was evident at the party rally here in Tzaneen. Although two of the party's top Cabinet ministers were on hand, the front rows of the Ben Vorster High School auditorium were empty. The previous night, one of the speakers, Minister of Defense Magnus Malan, had drawn only 39 listeners at a rally in his home constituency. On this particular night, General Malan was on hand to sound what has become the central theme of the National Party's campaign: the "total onslaught" against South Africa from outside the country.
The general warned that South Africa was the ultimate "objective" of world communism, because of its strategic position and its mineral wealth. The rest of the subcontinent had fallen to communism, he warned, not because of direct military action but because of political developments -- notably, the loss of white resolve.
That must not happen here, he warned. Whites should reject the PFP's policy of capitulation, he said, as well as the hard-line segregation advocated by the HNP. Both would lead to confrontation, said the general.
That highlights one of the ironies of this election. It is that the National Party, which came into power by appealing to right-wing white-supremacist sentiments and Afrikaner nationalism, now is trying to retain power by portraying itself as moderate, even centrist, in outlook.
It does this by preaching a blend of soothing reassurances that whites' interests are being safeguarded and dire warnings of a growing communist-inspired onslaught that can only be met by bettering the lot of black people.
The National Party, its spokesmen claim, is busy meeting black aspirations -- while still hewing to the original plan of apartheid (racial separation) envisioned by former Prime Minister Hendrik F. Verwoerd.
The lack of specifics as to how this is to be accomplished apparently doesn't bother many party stalwarts.
"The party hasn't changed in 35 years," said one pleased audience member after the rally, here in Tzaneen. "Policies yes, but principles no."
What is the difference?
That is what many of the government's critics would like to know. The right-wing HNP has been able to whip up some enthusiasm for its cause, by citing specific examples of integration -- in sports teams, for example.
The PFP, on the other hand, has spread its fire, not only criticizing the government's racial policies but also hammering at bread-and-butter issues as well.
PFP leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, himself an Afrikaner, has been featured prominently in a series of newspaper ads slamming the government's economic performance. One notes, for example, that "since the last election food prices are up 94.8 percent."
The tactic has worked sometimes, forcing Nationalist campaigners onto the defensive -- and into verbal contortions trying to justify the government's economic performance. Minister of Health Dr. L. A. Munnik, for example, recently made the patently absurd claim that retired people need only spend about 20 rand ($25) a month on food when the government spends four times that on the meager rations served to prisoners.
Nevertheless, the PFP's repeated criticism of food prices has, at times, come across as merely strident and has undercut the party's own claim that the very future of the country was the central election issue.
However, there may be a few electoral upsets in the making. Dr. Dawie de Villiers, formerly the South African ambassador to Britain and a popular former rugby star, could be bested by the PFP in his Cape Town constituency. And a few analysts are predicting that the conservative leader of the National Party in Transvaal Province, Dr. Andries Treurnicht, may be stopped by HNP leader Jaap Marais, though that is clearly a long shot.
When the votes are counted, however, there is virtually no doubt that the Nationalists will once again find themselves in firm control of the government.
The government, perhaps, but not the country -- for even as the campaign drew to a close here, more incidents of guerilla violence jarred the white electorate. In the most serious one, a banned black nationalist organization, the African National Congress (ANC), blew up an electrical substation near Durban, causing more than $2 million worht of damage.
Government officials announced costly new plans to beef up security, and police disclosed that ANC cadres based in neighboring Mozambique were using increasingly sophisticated methods of infiltration and sabotage.
In the minds of many whites, that only strengthened the government's claim that the chief threat to their country springs from outside its borders -- and not from the government's discriminatory racial policies.
The same can be said for moves in the United Nations to isolate South Africa with economic and military sanctions. To many whites here, that is only proof of the essential correctness of government policies -- and the failure of the rest of the world to understand or appreciate them.
Internal sabotage and international censure does cause some white South African's to question the Nationalists' fitness to rule. But the vast majority will no doubt heed the government's call for support to resist the "total onslaught" regardless of the consequences.
Some of that steely determination could be heard in the voices of the people of Tzaneen, as they intoned the national anthem.
The words were in Afrikans, but in English they carry the same message of uncompromising allegiance:
"At thy call we shall not falter, firm and steadfast we shall stand, at thy will to live or perish, oh South Africa, dear land."